ALLENTOWN, Pa. — With two big swings, Bryce Harper looked set to join the Phillies in a pennant race.
Harper homered to right-center on his first at-bat, then went to the opposite court for an eighth-inning three-run shot for Philadelphia’s Triple-A team on Tuesday night to begin his rehab mission at from a broken left thumb.
Harper was the designated hitter and hit second for the Lehigh Valley IronPigs roster for the start of a six-game series against Gwinnett. He drilled the fifth pitch he saw from Atlanta Braves prospect Jared Shuster over the wall at Coca-Cola Park in front of what was reported to be a sold-out crowd of 10,100 fans.
“I think any time you go out and you’re able to put the stick on the ball and have good sticks, see some pitches, compete at a high level, that’s always good,” said Harper.
He walked against Shuster in his second at bat to boos from the crowd who wanted Harper to take another big hack. Harper was later caught stealing. He failed in his third plate appearance, walked again and scored in the seventh to lead Lehigh Valley past Gwinnett 10-5.
Gwinnett was amused after Harper’s solo homer cut the Stripers lead, tweeting “Phillies prospect Bryce Harper goes far to cut the Stripers lead 3-1. Admittedly he looks like one to watch in the future.”
And before Harper’s fifth time, the scoreboard read, “Today 1-2 Bryce Bomb.” Do two.
Harper, who won his second NL MVP award last year, hasn’t played for the Phillies since breaking his left thumb on June 25. He is expected to play in Lehigh Valley through Saturday and possibly return to Philadelphia on Monday when the playoff-seeking Phillies begin a series in Arizona.
But with two home runs in his first rehab game, why wait until Monday to add him to a team that really needs him now?
“Tonight was great, wasn’t it? But at the same time I need the bats, I need to be able to see the pitches, different guys, different angles, understand how my body is going to react , what my thumb will look like,” Harper said.
Harper, 29, who signed a 13-year, $330 million contract with the Phillies in 2019, is hitting .318 with 15 homers, 48 RBI and a .985 OPS. Harper had already given up his place in right field earlier this season because of a small tear in the ulnar collateral ligament of his throwing elbow. He last played on the court in Miami on April 16.
When asked if he could play on the right court in September, Harper simply said “no.”
The Phillies outlasted the Cincinnati Reds 7-6 on Tuesday night and remained at the heart of the NL wildcard race. After the victory, Phillies interim manager Rob Thomson said staff would speak to Harper about his return date and did not rule out the possibility of Friday.
“Bring him on. He doesn’t need more games,” Philadelphia second baseman Jean Segura said after the win. “What’s he doing over there? He’s ready. Hope he comes back soon. If he hits two home runs, bring him on.”
Harper was a smash hit for fans who turned out in season-high numbers to catch a glimpse of one of baseball’s most popular players.
The IronPigs merchandise store and ticket phone lines were buzzing each of the past two days in anticipation of his arrival. Will he play? Will the jerseys be on sale? What time do the doors open? A cashier looked out the window of the team store and noted, “I never saw 5:12 a.m., just hundreds of people standing there.”
Merchandising manager Mike Luciano faced an early block when Harper decided to change his uniform number for his time in the minor league. Although it was an attraction, Harper didn’t want to distract the IronPigs and allowed reliever Jonathan Hennigan to retain his No. 3 while the slugger moved one up to No. 4.
“I ordered a lot of 3s,” Luciano said. “Fortunately, the 4 have arrived.”
Harper t-shirts were really hot in the press. About 90 minutes before the first pitch, about 150 Harper shirts were still as hot as a baseball hot dog as they quickly moved from print to merchandise store shelves. Blue No. 4 shirts sold for $28, and a limited number of custom jerseys went for $110. Sales sizzled at a better pace than the usual top sellers, which Luciano said would be “anything with bacon.”
“You put a slice of bacon on a hat, people love that,” Luciano said.
Allentown’s Chris Philpott bought two game tickets in the morning and grabbed a Harper t-shirt from the store. He typically attends about 12 IronPigs games a year and only had to secure tickets for Tuesday night.
“I arrived early because my child was hoping to catch up with him on BP,” he said. “We saw all the cameras when we arrived. It’s going to be crazy tonight. Normally you don’t see people queuing when there’s no freebies this early before the game opens.”
Harper jumped onto the court, but that didn’t stop fans from clinging to the railing near the IronPigs’ dugouts hoping to catch a glimpse of the two-time NL MVP. TV stations broadcast live remotes and the press box was full of media normally reserved for Phillies coverage, playing from home on the Citizens Bank Park Turnpike.
Two hours before the doors opened, only 80 tickets remained, most of them on the right field line. The stadium – which once hosted similar warm-ups for Pedro Martinez and Chase Utley – was full on a night that went down to the dogs. Yes, in a nod to an evening dedicated to the area’s dog adoption efforts, Harper skipped the bacon-themed gear for an IronMutts jersey.
Oh, and 195 dogs waggled their tails at the ballpark — 44 were adopted, and a few pooches can probably thank Harper’s cameo for their new homes.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.